Around the Horn: Starting rotation
Lohse eager to lead Brewers' staff from the beginning
This is the first of a seven-part Around the Horn series that features a position-by-position look at the Brewers' projected starters and backup options heading into the 2014 season. Up next: Starting rotation.
PHOENIX -- Kyle Lohse's first Spring Training came in 1997, when fellow Brewers starter Wily Peralta was 7 years old and the youngest pitcher in Milwaukee's camp, Wei-Chung Wang, was only 4. One would not blame Lohse these days if he found bunt drills and intrasquad games a bit dull.
Instead, the 35-year-old will have some hop in his step this spring.
"I wouldn't miss all the drills or how long Spring Training can be," Lohse said, as he prepared for his 14th Major League season. "But you do miss being out there on the field and doing stuff with your teammates, that bond you get when you get out there. I did miss out on that last year."
Last year, as pitchers and catchers reported for duty around baseball, Lohse sat at home, a proven pitcher coming off his finest season, but unable to land a job. He was in the first wave of free agents navigating Major League Baseball's new system of "qualifying offers," which meant that any team interested in Lohse would have to surrender a premium Draft pick to get him.
So Lohse waited, then waited some more. He tried to stay sharp by playing catch with friends, including golf buddy Mark Mulder. He threw live batting practice against the Fighting Artichokes of Scottsdale Community College. On one particularly bizarre afternoon, his "opponent" was a Korean billionaire.
Finally, a week before Opening Day, he landed a three-year, $33 million contract with the Brewers. Less than two weeks later, Lohse was making his regular season debut against the D-backs, beginning a solid season in which Lohse went 11-10 with a 3.35 ERA in 32 starts and 198 2/3 innings.
Season No. 2 begins Monday, when Lohse joins the other Brewers pitchers and catchers at Maryvale Baseball Park for the first official workout of 2014.
"It was a lot more stress-free this offseason than last," Lohse said. "Last year, I'm sitting there while Spring Training was going on, confused as to why I didn't have a job and nobody was offering me anything. So I'm looking forward to this year."
Once again, the Brewers have bolstered their rotation with a formidable free agent. Matt Garza signed for four years and $50 million in late January, giving the Brewers a seasoned top three -- Garza, Yovani Gallardo and Lohse -- plus Marco Estrada and Peralta projected to make the cut for Opening Day, and younger starters like Tyler Thornburg, Johnny Hellweg, Hiram Burgos and top prospect Jimmy Nelson in reserve.
"We're deep," catcher Jonathan Lucroy said. "If a guy goes down, we've got another guy who can step in and get the job done."
Said Lohse: "I think, quietly, we've got some good things going for us."
Some of the good things started happening last season. With Lohse healthy, Gallardo pitching more like the pitcher of old and Peralta gaining experience, Brewers starters combined for a 3.44 ERA after July 1, second-best in the National League to the Dodgers' 2.76.
The questions about this year's group include: Can Garza and Estrada stay healthy? Can Peralta continue his upward development? Can Gallardo rebound from his most disappointing season?
The home-grown Gallardo was effective in the second half but finished with an ERA above 4.00 (4.18) for the first time and a career-low WAR of 0.5. He harbored heartbreak after the death of his mother during the offseason. He faced controversy in April when he was arrested for drunken driving. He dealt with a dip in velocity, continuing a trend in recent seasons that Brewers coaches believe was exacerbated last season by Gallardo's hurried preparation for the World Baseball Classic.
Gallardo turns 28 later this month and is entering the final guaranteed season of his contract.
"He's at an age where he should be on this downward tilt," Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said. "I hate to blame it on things, but the Spring Training last year was different for him. I hope he can come into camp and I can see what I saw the first couple of years here. The first time I [saw Gallardo] throw a bullpen, I was amazed. I'm hoping that when I see him throw his first bullpen here, I feel the same way."
Lohse's own debut season in Milwaukee was solid, aside from one stretch of May when his elbow flared up. He opted to pitch through the discomfort and went 0-4 with a 6.41 ERA for the month, while the Brewers went 6-22 as a team.
It is impossible, Lohse said, to assign a cause and effect, but he believes that his makeshift Spring Training probably played a role.
"I don't know for sure, but it makes sense," Lohse said. "I did everything I could minus some of that extra throwing that you don't really think about with the drills and stuff. Maybe the lack of games played into what happened.
"I was fine in April and then it was one of those nagging things that came up. Stubbornly, I kept trying to pitch through it, thinking it would get better, but I wasn't able to spin certain pitches the way I wanted to, and I paid the price for that until I stepped back and skipped a start."
In his final 22 starts from the beginning of June through the end of the season, Lohse was 10-4 with a 2.91 ERA. Only seven National League starters had a better ERA in that span, and only 10 delivered more innings than Lohse's 139.
Take away those poor starts in April, and Lohse was as good as he was for the Cardinals in 2012, when he went 16-3 with a 2.86 ERA. In his last three seasons, since a forearm surgery forced Lohse to reinvent himself as a sinkerballer, he is 41-21 with a 3.19 ERA. Felix Hernandez's ERA in the same span is 3.20. Zack Greinke's is 3.32.
"I feel really good about our pitching staff," Roenicke said. "Bullpen, starters. I think we have a nice mix of veterans and some guys with real good potential, and some good young arms coming."